Being as it’s a byproduct of the same one-man operation, Kluae is Leæther Strip with its sweeping keyboard shell pared off, essentially leaving a more melodic and interesting Combichrist, that is to say, hard-as-hell EBM for spooky Goths to terrorize their little brothers with. Now that that’s out of the way and our web server has crashed under the weight of all the preceding unnecessary grapheme obscurities (“Leæther Strip” is, yes, pronounced “Leather Strip,” and no, German rockers, we Americans still refuse to indulge your weird letters), all that really remains is talking up WTII for hitting another one out of the park; this is the most crazy-ass hard-ass stuff I’ve received from them since the last Acumen Nation LP. Claus Larsen, the chef/cook/bottle-washer of this, mops the floor with his old cybergoth rivals from the days of Zoth Ommog Records, and by that I mean Assemblage 23 and all those guys, who pack nowhere near the anger-management firepower this album has. If you bemoan how quickly Combichrist descended into posturing suckage, this is the thing you wantPeter Baron cannot stand still. One moment he is hovering over me and the next he is kneeling on the floor. A second later he mounts a bench and flings open his arms before he leaps down and starts pacing. You could say he has the energy of two men, which makes sense because there are two Peter Barons. The plumber. The playwright.
For the better part of a decade, Baron has fitted pipe to fund his passion. He has trudged from job site to job site, carrying with him only his tools and an unwavering, if not maniacal, confidence. No matter how many doors slammed in his face, Peter Baron was determined to beat the odds. He would transform from an unknown New Hampshire plumber to the toast of Broadway. This is why Baron, who still lives in Hooksett, is pacing. For the first time in more than 10 years his dream is in sight, and he doesn't want to slow down.
An unlikely beginning
Manchester-born and -bred, Baron began strumming a guitar at 12 years old. It was his father’s idea. What Baron did with that guitar was probably not part of his old man’s plan. He formed a rock band called the Bronin Hogman Band.
“In those days [the mid-1970s], the uglier the name the better,” Baron said.
Quickly, he learned the showman’s lesson: the crazier he was, the more money he made. Baron harnessed all of that raging energy and unleashed it on stage. He jumped off speakers, performed tribal war dances and, most of all, got noticed. The Bronin Hogman Band joined up with some larger rock acts and spent two years on the road touring the East Coast.
“The first year was great,” Baron said. “It was all wine, women and hotel rooms. But by the second year it was already old.”
The band wrote and performed their own original songs and recorded an album with Columbia Records. It was one of their songs — the one that got skewered most by critics — that would transform Baron’s life. It all started with a couple of drinks.
Baron was in Burlington, Vt., drinking beers with a young guy in his 20s. At some point, the young man got up to use the bathroom. He needed a cane when he walked. When he returned, Baron asked what happened. The young man rolled up his jeans and, as Baron described it, had a Frankenstein X on both knees. The young man explained that despite his protests, his father made him play football, which ultimately led to a violent injury.
“His father was living vicariously through him,” Baron said. “This struck a chord in me.”
In response, Baron wrote “No More Football,” a monster, 10-minute, full symphony (snippets of a recorded football game included) track on Bronin Hogman Band’s album.
“Critics were like: this is written by the guy who was flipping off of speakers?” Baron said. “They didn’t understand it.”
They didn’t understand Peter Baron.
Life gets in the way
For the next 15 years, Baron’s creativity went into hibernation. He got married, started his own plumbing company and bowed down to the altar of America’s newest religion: money, power, house, BMW.
“I got sucked into Reaganism,” Baron said.
He would be let loose after listening to The Who’s Tommy, a rock musical written by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. Suddenly, “No More Football” made sense. He had always been writing a musical.
Thus, Boomers: The Musical of a Generation was born.
His muse now awakened, there were no longer mundane tasks. A drive to a job became a recording session. Baron would sing lyrics, hum melodies and speak dialogue into a microcassette recorder. There was no method to his madness. In the rush to get his thoughts out, everything was out of order. But he ended up filling both sides of 78 cassettes. It took six months to organize them, but what he had completed was truly remarkable. He had written the music, lyrics and dialogue for a musical. He had just made Rodgers and Hammerstein seem lazy.
Boomers, the musical
As the name implies, Boomers appeals to the Baby Boom generation, those born during the baby boom following Word War II. But what has allowed it to endure is that it taps into the human condition, which stretches its appeal across generations.
“The material itself really resonates with people,” said Mark Sensinger, the arranger/orchestrator who has been involved with the project since its infancy. “It is about family and how life distracts us and, if you’re not careful, how you can take the people you love for granted.”
“It has a very New England sensibility to it,” said Gerald vanHeerden, the musical’s director through multiple renditions of the show. “It is steeped in mythology and symbolism. The show is about the All-American boy and girl and how their love unfolds over three decades.”
“Fathers went across the sea to beat the guy with the mustache,” Baron said. “They all came back and there was a national erection. There was a huge baby boom and an eternal optimism. All of these promises were made. We had everything we wanted. But it wasn’t to last.”
Act I is set in the 1960s. Will Vantage is the All-American boy: quarterback of the football team, beautiful girlfriend and a future written in bright lights. Will is the son of World War II hero Lief, but perhaps, more aptly, he is the son of an American illusion. Despite his seemingly charmed life, Will is unhappy. He doesn’t want to play football but instead wants to pursue music. He is not the only one who is conflicted.
His friends represent the tumultuousness of the time. Joey Spinelli, the class clown, wants to be a hero and so he enlists in the Marines and heads off to Vietnam. Greg wants to be a money manager, despite his father’s wishes; Laura (Will’s girlfriend) joins the Peace Corps, and her sister, Beth, becomes an anti-war flower child. Her boyfriend, Lance, however, joins the National Guard.
Eventually, Spinelli is killed in action and Act I culminates with Will leading a Kent State-like protest that, for Beth, ends just as badly and just as violently. For Baron, that first act is an ode to our lost idealism.
Act II opens at Will’s and Laura’s wedding. Eventually the two have a child whom Will promises to nurture and support. Will names his son Joey after his fallen friend. But Will’s career as a musician is a failure and so he turns to Greg to procure a job in finance. Over time, his work becomes the focal point of his existence, and Will neglects his wife and son. Even worse, he heaps the same sort of pressure and expectations on his boy as his father did on him.
As the musical progresses, Will is on the verge of losing both his career and his family. He must make a choice of which to save, and that choice will define not only him but also the American society.
“It was kind of autobiographical,” Baron said. “A man absorbed in things so much so that he loses himself and everybody around him gets lost.”
Baron said the musical deals with the issue of how the youth are apt to repeat the same mistakes if the cause of problems is not addressed. It is all set against the iconic backdrops of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
The journey begins
Unfortunately, Baron didn’t know anything about theater. Naturally, that would not bridle his enthusiasm. He decided to put on a show and secured a proper venue — the Derryfield School in Manchester — to host it. He hired a director from New York City and began rehearsals in his own home. This was 2001.
“Everyone was rehearsing and someone asked, “Who’s your stage manager?’” Baron said. “I had no idea what that was.”
Lou Duhamel knew. Duhamel had been involved as a producer with numerous shows at Actorsingers, which bills itself as Broadway in New Hampshire. Duhamel’s daughter, Allison, was in the ensemble for this inaugural performance.
“As soon as I heard the music, I fell in love with it,” Duhamel said. “It was as good as anything on Broadway.”
Duhamel assumed the role of stage manager and unofficial advocate for the show. Actorsingers only does two professional shows a year and had never done an original work. But in 2004, they put on Boomers — after a lot of wrinkles had been ironed out.
Shortly after the Derryfield performance, Sensinger, the arranger/orchestrator, answered an ad on the job board of his alma mater, the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Eventually, Sensinger met Baron and was given the piece “Candlelight Dinners” and asked to create an orchestral arrangement.
“That piece was an audition,” Sensinger said.
Sensinger explained his work by saying when someone composes a piece of music, the composer might not have the technical background to know how to assign instruments to certain parts: the flute should play this part, while the violin that part. Or he might not know know to use a different harmony for a particular melody to create a unique sound.
This was a challenge for Sensinger. He had earned his degree in jazz composition, but with Baron’s larger orchestral pieces, he would be working with stringed instruments as well. He was willing to extend himself because he believed in the work.
“Peter showed me video of the Derryfield performance and I remember the last scene, the climax, when the son is standing on the ledge, and the sophistication of the music impressed me,” Sensinger said.
Sensinger said it wasn’t the production value that made an impression but the fact that the final song brought back all the musical themes developed throughout the musical into one grand, final wrap-up. Immediately, he saw musical parallels with Leonard Bernstein’s Mass.
“That is how professional musicals should end,” Sensinger said. “The potential was there.”
Potential was never a problem for Baron.
“Peter Baron is absolutely a genius,” said Meridee Stein, who joined the team in June as the co-book writer. Such a compliment carries extra weight coming from Stein, who has collaborated on new works with such luminaries as Stephen Schwartz (who did the music and lyrics for Wicked), Charles Strouse (who did the music for Bye Bye Birdie) and Sheldon Harnick (who wrote lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof). “Over my 25 years I have worked with some strongly talented people and he is comparable. His work measures up extremely well.”
Stein said what is so rare about Baron’s work is that it evokes emotion not only in its lyrics but in the music itself.
Take for example “Candlelight Dinners,” which was Sensinger’s first collaboration. After a performance, a woman in her late 40s approached Baron in the lobby, mascara running down her face. She said to him, “Mr. Baron, to write the song ‘Candlelight Dinners,’ you must be a woman in a man’s body.”
Baron could only laugh. He wrote the song while going through the Hooksett toll booth. It hit him in a fury of inspiration. Where are the candlelight dinners? He drummed on the steering wheel. Candlelight dinners with wine and a song. He pulled the car over. We’d dance until two in the morning, In your arms nothing ever could go wrong. Baron floats across the room in a solo waltz, as he tells the story.
“The melody comes from my heart,” he said. “It bypasses my brain and the words come attached.”
The show moved on to the American Stage Festival in 2002. It was at this performance that Baron would win over one of his most loyal patrons.
Rosalie Hanson has been showcasing professional musicians for years and works closely with The Clayton Poole Big Band, The New England Wind Symphony Orchestra and the Capital Center Jazz Orchestra, to name a few. A friend of hers invited her to the American Stage Festival performance almost 10 years ago.
“She said to me: ‘A friend of mine wrote a musical,’” Hanson said. “I wasn’t expecting much. Whenever a ‘friend’ writes a musical, it doesn’t always turn out well.”
But after hearing eight or 10 bars of the first song, Hanson turned to her friend and mouthed, “Oh My God.” She couldn’t wait to meet Baron. However, she had to sit through the rest of the show, an experience that had her running through the entire gamut of emotions.
“I laughed and then I cried,” Hanson said. “I was upset and angry as well. And then, at the end of the show, when we celebrate our generation, literally everyone jumps up and cheers. They do this every time.”
Hanson should know. She has seen the show eight times and has traveled with it on its journey.
Its next stop was a concert in an Arts Jubilee by the Northeast Symphony, which at the time was a 51-piece symphony with many of its players from the Boston Pops.
During these years, the musical caught the attention of the Hippo’s theater critic at the time, Joe Lajeunesse, who wrote, “A stunning new musical...I can’t remember ever seeing a new show with this much potential... Boomers could take Broadway by storm and run for years.”
Unfortunately, Lajeunesse would not live to see Boomers future success. He died shortly after penning those words. Talking with Baron, you can see just how far those words of encouragement took him. That is why it was no surprise that Lajeunesse’s praise was on the advertisement for Boomers that appeared in the May 19-May 25 2008 issue of Variety magazine. Or that Baron honored him during his acceptance speech when Boomers won the Best Original Play-Musical at the third annual NH Theatre Awards.
But before it won, the musical had to be performed. By 2004 Boomers had evolved and Duhamel convinced the Actorsingers to take a flier on this original piece. Although performing this production would be a little less costly, because they didn’t have to buy the rights from the playwright, there were still professional and financial risks. But Duhamel was confident.
“It was a learning process from day one,” Duhamel said. “Over time, Peter and I grew to become good friends. It was always a pleasure.”
Duhamel was rewarded for his faith. The production of Boomers was a constant sell-out even though it was held during the long, cold nights of February.
Its success would be Baron’s first big break.
A friend of Baron’s (there is a theme developing of people who believed in Baron and have aided him along the way) passed on a CD of his songs to Ted Mozino, a wealthy and classically trained producer from Florida.
“Ted calls me out of the blue,” Baron said, “and said, ‘You stole all of those melodies and I will prove it. They’re too good.’
“He calls back later,” Baron continued, “and says, ‘You didn’t steal them. Where do I sign?’”
Baron went down to Florida to see Mozino, who immediately wrote him a $50,000 check. Without hesitation, Baron put that money right back into the show. The investment bought Mozino a 25-percent stake in Boomers and the two went to work staging a show worthy of Boomers’ meteoric rise.
Yet, even as his status as a playwright was gaining traction, Baron could not escape the plumber. During all of this he was still working jobs. His employers saw past his skills as a pipe fitter to his talents as a bard. As the Florida show was prepping, Baron was working on a boiler for one of his clients, Kalwall in Manchester.
“They believed in me,” Baron said. “I was working on a boiler and then, in the middle of the job, I disappeared to Florida for four weeks, and then came back and finished the boiler.”
The show to which Baron disappeared was held at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in September of 2006. It featured a rock band and a symphony orchestra but despite all its allure, publicity wasn’t done until the week before the show, so there was a disappointing turnout. But, as was becoming typical, those who found their way to the seats, Hanson included, loved the show. Every performance was punctuated by a standing ovation. So Baron was encouraged. Unfortunately, his luck was about to change.
“Doors started closing”
Without rhyme or reason, the trail to Broadway suddenly went cold. Suddenly the distance from New Hampshire plumber to toast of Broadway seemed infinite.
“Without warning, doors started closing,” Baron said. “I spent three years trying to sit down with the big boys and have them listen.”
Baron sat down across from one heavy weight producer who told Baron that for $50,000 he might be able to do something. Maybe.
What has made Baron’s dream even more difficult to attain is that it is entwined within its own dream — a dream of Broadway as it once was: a kingmaker of creativity; the yin to Hollywood’s yang. Unfortunately, as with so many American institutions, the costs on Broadway keep rising in no correlation with razor-thin profit margins (Stein said producing Boomers Off-Broadway would cost around $2 million but on Broadway the show would cost $8 to $10 million). In response, like Hollywood, Broadway relies on proven commodities to ensure success. These are the shows currently on Broadway: Wicked, The Lion King, The Book of Mormon (from the creators of South Park), Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins, Memphis, Sister Act, Chicago, The Addams Family, Catch Me If You Can, Rock of Ages, Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles, Hair, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
The point being: save for maybe Memphis and Rock of Ages, none of these came from the pen of an unknown outsider. The odds were stacked very high against Baron.
“It would be difficult for anybody,” Sensinger said. “It has been amazing to watch the amount of sacrifice he [Baron] has made to bring this musical from New Hampshire to New York. It is a tremendous undertaking.”
Three years of rejection would have been enough to discourage even the most animated fledgling writer. Despite a thick skin, Baron was not immune to the chorus of “no”s. In addition, there was the fact that he had sunk so much of his own personal wealth into the production.
“I won’t tell you how much I spent on the show because if I did you wouldn’t believe me or you’d call me crazy,” Baron said.
Eventually, he hit rock bottom. He was down in the dumps and on the verge of throwing the script away. Then he talked with Hanson — his creative guardian angel, so to speak. She asked him to meet her at McDonald’s and when he arrived she presented him with a tinfoil Oscar statute she had created. She said he would win the real thing one day when Boomers was turned into a movie.
It was the kerosene Baron needed. He redoubled his efforts. He would see his dream to the end, not only for all of those who believed in him but because, simply put, there was nothing else he could do.
Like the Energizer Bunny
“I just keep going,” Baron said.
He is aided by e-mails like the one he received from a father after a show. The musical ends with Will’s son, feeling alienated by his father, climbing out on a ledge ready to end it all. Will, realizing the errors of his ways and how he had morphed into his own father, rushes to his son’s side. The two tussle, their relationship, literally and metaphorically, on the edge of destruction. It is a powerful scene and it certainly impacted the man who e-mailed Baron. He told Baron that after watching Boomers, he went home, woke his 15-year-old son up and, for the first time, hugged him and expressed his love.
“That’s what keeps me going,” Baron said.
This statement is both true and false. While it is nice to have positive reinforcement, it is safe to say Baron would press forward with or without it. Baron’s determination was so evident that William Hartery, the actor who played the lead in the first five shows, dubbed Baron the Rocky Balboa of musical theater.
Baron once spoke to a group of students at the Derryfield School, the location of his first public performance. He asked the students to raise their hands if they wanted to be a writer. Almost all of the hands extended skyward. Baron, perhaps reflecting on his own experience, cautioned them. To want wasn’t good enough. To succeed, they must feel they “had” to be writers.
Baron had to write this musical. That is why Boomers doesn’t follow in the footsteps of other plays heavily influenced by New Hampshire, like On Golden Pond or Our Town. Instead, Boomers has grander ambitions. It hopes to encapsulate an entire generation and, through that portrait, communicate universal truths. For Baron, Boomers is both a glamour shot and an autopsy photo of all those who shared the same brief moment of time.
To have that bravado, to believe your experiences represent us all, takes some serious guts. It also takes talent. And it was that combination that ultimately led Boomers out of the wilderness.
Dreams do come true
“It is not difficult to succeed if you have passion and the talent to match,” Stein said. “The passion comes out in the work and nothing can keep it in.”
Imagine for a moment the discipline. It all came together for Baron last year. Boomers was set to run Off-Broadway, which is generally a reference to the size of the venue and scope of the production. In the end, it never happened. Baron pulled the plug. For his New York coming-out party he wanted the best, and after nearly a decade, he wasn’t ready to settle.
This year it was different. All the pieces lined up. Stein, who at this point in her career can pick and choose what she wants to be part of, chose to come on as co-book writer. A cast of familiar characters banned together: Mozino is producing and funding the Off-Broadway run, vanHeerden has returned to direct and Sensinger is doing the arrangements.
Baron has finally arrived in New York City. Boomers will run for three weekends at the June Havoc Theater, as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
The Boomers New York audiences and potential Broadway producers will see is not the same version that magically popped into Baron’s head as he drove up and down the highways of New Hampshire. Boomers through this process, like Baron, has been refined.
“I see my job as untangling the story Peter wrote,” Stein said, “and getting to its essence.”
Stein said she got rid of the fat and left the meat of it. This coincides with vanHeerden’s vision to strip down the production until they found its soul, the universal truths that could transcend generations.
Since the musical is part of a festival, they have to be flexible with space and fit into the construct of the festival. This results in smaller sets and a more intimate performance. This works fine for vanHeerden, who wants to extract exactly what makes the musical special. This has to be done on a smaller scale. From there, they can make the show bigger to fit into the conventional parameters of Broadway. But they couldn’t do it the other way around.
For this, vanHeerden gives Baron a lot of credit. He said Baron opened himself to learning and to improvement through the help of many talented people over the years. When other artists might be protective and defensive, Baron was open and obliging. But he still fiercely defended the parts of the work he held most dear.
“We worked really well together,” Stein said. “We battled as creative people, but when Peter justified what he wanted, we would keep it in.”
Those who are just getting involved, like Stein, now believe what those who were there from the beginning have thought all along: after more than a decade, Boomers is only beginning.
“The show could have a tremendous life,” Stein said. “I can see it on Broadway. It definitely has a shot. To be honest, I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think it had a future.”
Of course at some point potential only takes you so far, which is why vanHeerden said this is a definitive time for Boomers.
“You only get so many opportunities,” Stein said.
Only time will tell whether Boomers becomes all Baron dreamed it would and whether the dream was worth all the sacrifice. But regardless of its reception in Gotham City, Boomers has already transformed the lives of so many it has touched.
Through what they learned from their involvement, Sensinger has established himself as a genuine composer who has written pieces for the Northeast Symphony Orchestra, and vanHeerden created a foundation of authenticity that has allowed him to direct with authority a variety of shows in New York.
Their success reminds Baron that no man is an island. He is genuinely indebted to all those who have intervened along the way.
“There are many many in Manchester and New Hampshire that believe in me and this piece...,” Baron said. “I owe it to them for their support over the years. That is what this is all about, not me. I don’t care about money or fame. It is the show.”
The show has been the great love affair of his life. Boomers inspired him to write a second musical, My Brother’s Keeper, which he hopes follows in the footsteps of Boomers. He is also toying with the idea of a musical about a plumber who wants to be a playwright. Sometimes art does imitate life.
But above what it has done creatively, it has changed who Baron is as a man. It began in New Hampshire when he tried to capture the voice of his generation and it has ended in New York with him inspiring an entirely new generation of dreamers.
Against all odds, the Rocky Balboa of musical theater has succeeded.
Yo New Hampshire, he did it.